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Using OneDrive for Nearly Continuous Backup

In previous articles, I looked at creating an image backup using Windows 10’s built-in imaging tool1, and setting up File History to back up files that change on a regular basis to an external drive.

This is all good — but we can do better.

Best practices for a robust backup strategy call for keeping a backup copy off-site. OneDrive, included as part of Windows 10, can do that automatically.

We’ll set up OneDrive, and then make a couple of changes to other applications to make our use of OneDrive for backing up nearly transparent.

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Summary

  • You’ll need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.
  • OneDrive is included in Windows 10, and can be downloaded and installed on older versions of Windows.
  • Setting up OneDrive creates a OneDrive folder on your PC.
  • OneDrive automatically copies files and folders in that OneDrive folder to the cloud and other PCs.
  • Setting OneDrive as the default location to save documents makes using it transparent.
  • OneDrive includes a Version History feature to recover accidental changes and deletions.

Microsoft account and connectivity

You need a Microsoft account to use OneDrive.

You may already be using one to log into your PC. If you’re logging in with an email address — particularly if it’s a @hotmail.com, @outlook.com, @msn.com, or other Microsoft-provided email domain — you already have one.

If not, and you don’t have a Microsoft account at all, I’d recommend visiting outlook.com and signing up for a new account. It’s free.

You will also need to be online for OneDrive to work. It’s best if you’re constantly connected, but it’ll work with an intermittent connection as well. As with all things online, the faster the better.

OneDrive

OneDrive is standard in Windows 10. In fact, it’s downright difficult to remove. 🙂 (It can also be download and installed in previous versions of Windows from the OneDrive website.)

If OneDrive has not yet been set up, you’ll often get a notification to “finish” setting it up, and the taskbar icon may have a red error indicator.

OneDrive icon

If you don’t see the icon, you may need to click the “Show hidden icons” carat (^ — not present above) to make the OneDrive icon appear in the notification area.

Click the OneDrive icon to launch the setup process.

Setting up OneDrive

First, you’ll be asked for the email address corresponding to your Microsoft account. Type it in and click Sign in.

OneDrive Setup - email address

Once signed in, you’ll be shown the location of your OneDrive folder, with the option to change that location.

OneDrive Default Folder Location

Unless you have a specific reason to change it — such as placing it on a different drive — leaving it at the default location is fine. That location will be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”, where “<login id>” is replaced with your log-in identifier. In the example above, that’s “lnote”. That puts the OneDrive folder in the same place as your Documents (“C:\Users\<login id>\Documents”), Downloads (“C:\Users\<login id>\Downloads”), Pictures folders (“C:\Users\<login id>\Pictures”).

You’ll be presented with a list of folders in your OneDrive account.

OneDrive Folders

Since I already have and use OneDrive, it displays a list of the folders already included there. The contents of all the folders I select will be downloaded and mirrored on my PC. If this is your first use of OneDrive, your folder list may be empty.

Unless you know you have specific requirements otherwise, make sure “Sync all files and folders in OneDrive” is checked. Click on Next.

That’s it! Well, you may be presented with some “Isn’t OneDrive wonderful?” marketing and informational messages, but it’s set up. OneDrive is at work.

What OneDrive does for backing up

After setting it up, you might be wondering why we bothered with all that. What’s in it for us?

At its most basic, OneDrive operates similarly to other cloud storage services: what’s on your hard drive is a mirror — a copy — of what’s in your OneDrive account online.

Great. What’s that mean?

Two things:

  1. Any time you add or update a file or folder within the OneDrive folder on your machine, it is automatically uploaded to OneDrive online.
  2. Any time a file appears in OneDrive online, it’s automatically downloaded to the OneDrive folder on your machine.

The file is available in both locations, and you can use either.

For our purposes today, that’s it. In fact, I’m going to completely ignore the second and focus entirely on the first: whenever you add or change something in the OneDrive folder on your machine, it’s automatically uploaded.

Automatically uploaded.

Or to put another way: it’s automatically backed up to the cloud.

Leveraging OneDrive transparently

The easiest way to make sure OneDrive is always backing up your work is to always do your work in OneDrive.

That means instead of creating your new documents (or Pictures, or Music, or whatever) in your “Documents” folder, create them in your OneDrive folder. Then, every time you hit “Save”, the document is updated on your disk and uploaded to your OneDrive online account.

Put another way, every time you hit “Save”, your document is backed up to the cloud. Your PC could be destroyed, but your document(s) will still be there, online, in your OneDrive account.

The easiest way to create all your new work within OneDrive is to change the default folder your applications use. Unfortunately, that’s not a global setting; it’s something you need to locate and change for each application.

Some applications remember the last folder you used and automatically use that folder again the next time you create or save a document. Others don’t remember at all, and you need to remember to save your document to your OneDrive folder. Others, like Microsoft Word (shown below), have options buried in advanced settings that allow you to change the default location.

Default Document Location Setting in Microsoft Word

The default will almost certainly be “C:\Users\<login id>\Documents”; you want to modify that to be “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive”. If you’re like me, and like to keep things organized, you might create a folder within your OneDrive folder — perhaps “WordDocs” — and set the default location to “C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\WordDocs”. Now all the new documents you create will:

  • Be created in OneDrive.
  • Be automatically uploaded every time you click on “Save” or exit the program.

It may seem like a little hassle to locate the options within the programs you use most often, but it’s something you need to do only once …

… and it’ll pay off every time you need to grab a file from your OneDrive online backup.

Version history

As I’ve said, the big selling point of OneDrive, and utilities like it, is that you can install it on multiple machines, and the files you place in your OneDrive folder will be synchronized across all of them.

OneDrive online also includes version history. Right-click on a file in the online interface and you’ll be given an option to review the history of previous edits or versions of the file.

OneDrive Version History

For Microsoft Office files, the files will be shown in their respective online interface, so you can view the contents. Otherwise, you’ll simply be given a list of different dates on which previous versions of the file were saved. Currently, up to 30 days of previous versions will be kept, but naturally that’s subject to change (and whether or not you upgrade to one of OneDrive’s premium plans).

The bottom line, however, is that if you’re using OneDrive as I’ve outlined here, and you make a number of changes, or accidentally delete a file in the OneDrive folder on your hard drive, not to worry: you can still use the OneDrive online interface to retrieve previous copies of the file.

OneDrive is available across different devices, including phones and tablets, as well as different operating systems, including both PC and Mac.

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Footnotes & references

1: Shortly after I wrote that, Microsoft announced they will remove it from Windows 10. I’ll have an alternative solution at some point soon, but it will involve a third party tool, as Microsoft suggests.

56 comments on “Using OneDrive for Nearly Continuous Backup”

  1. Essential to also read your “4 Important Rules to Safely Use Cloud Storage as Cloud Backup” article in conjunction with this. If one should fall victim to hostile file encryption, instantaneous backup to Onedrive presumably would result in those being encrypted too. A simple, but probably inefficient, means I use is to weekly make a copy within Onedrive of backed up files.

      • How long do items stay in OneDrive’s recycle bin? If my kids delete a file and I don’t notice right away, I could always go through backups on my external drive until I find the file. My limit of how far back I could go to try and locate the file is based on the schedule which I create for keeping older backups. I know on my computer, there’s a Windows setting that can limit the size of the recycle bin, so that older files are permanently deleted when the recycle bin gets full. If I am relying on OneDrive, it would be nice to know what Microsoft’s “schedule” or rationale is.

        • If you allow sharing your files, you will not know when someone deleted a file or folder unless there is some specific notification of it. DropBox will do that, but you still need to be keeping track. This is not a backup issue as much as thrusting the people with whom you share your files. The only option I see is to make your files read only or to be accessible by you with administrator privileges.

    • OneDrive is part of my backup strategy. I do have my documents in there by default now, so I can access them on other computers. The backup part of it is a nice side benefit.

      Every so often, I copy the contents to Google Drive as well in case MS decides to kill OneDrive. Both MS and Google accounts are protected with Two Factor Authentication, so almost no risk of “hackers” getting in.

      I also have a local external drive with scheduled backups – it does backup the OneDrive and Google Drive folders on the computer.

      Each one by itself isn’t perfect, but when you do them all, I’m pretty confident I can get anything back that’s really important.

  2. Hi Leo,

    Nice article. Couple of observations.

    You don’t need a Microsoft account, you can just provide whatever email you normally use and they’ll accept it.

    One other perk of OneDrive or other mirroring systems is that if you have multiple computers, like a desktop and a laptop, which I do, you can install the same login on both and they will be kept in sync.

    You say ” Microsoft announced they will remove it from Windows 10″. Did you mean OneDrive? I don’t see any announcements about that anywhere in Google.

    Also, You might want to discuss Google drive. Google drive gives you 10 gig instead of Onedrives 5 gig. Plus stores photos from Android based phones for free. And, EVERYONE who has an Android based phone should have the phones contacts and other data backed up to a gmail account in case they lose or break the phone.

      • I received an MS email telling me that on Oct 28, my OneDrive would be deleted because I was not using it. But OnDrive had automatically been backing up my documents and such.

          • Could have been a scam. I deleted it. I have never deliberately put anything in OneDrive anyway, so I don’t care if they delete it. It would actually make my computing easier to get rid of it.

  3. When I first got my Windows 8 computer in 2014, and they had a lot more storage space for OneDrive, I used it a lot, especially for photo backup. I was already using Dropbox. After they cut back the limits, I exclusively use Dropbox for all my work, and then use OneDrive for some of my old computers if I need them, and moved all my photos to Google Photo.

  4. Thank you Leo for the great and helpful article…among so many others just as valuable. I also learn from the comments.
    I tried this as I’ve been wanting to get a “cloud” backup for sometime now, but the list of files it presented are all empty. Could it be that it got the files from Edge from which I try very hard to be away since I couldn’t delete it?
    I also tried to drag my files from File Explorer into the OneDrive but they wouldn’t stay…
    This is why I’m reluctant to do things on the computer other than write emails and search the net, it seems often I find obstacles in trying things so I cry and want to hit my computer with an ax… 🙁

    • Edge should have nothing to do with this. When you say “they won’t stay”…. EXACTLY where are you dragging them to? You would drag them from one folder in File Explorer to a folder within your OneDrive folder – also within Windows File Explorer.

      • If Adela is logged in to OneDrive on a web browser, Adela could drag files from File Explorer to the browser window to upload to OneDrive, but if Adela does not keep the browser window open long enough to allow the files to upload, then Adela would lose the files in OneDrive, presumably why “they wouldn’t stay.” I think Adela may be mixing up the installed app with the web browser application, which works differently than the installed app (which is what Leo described).

        I only do this to copy files off an old Windows XP machine (MS doesn’t make the OneDrive app for XP). Otherwise, I prefer to do it as Leo described, using the OneDrive app (which you can download for Windows 7, if you’re still using 7). If a file doesn’t completely upload while your computer is on and connected to the internet, the app will just continue uploading it another time when your computer is running and connected. In other words, the app works on my schedule, unlike the browser application that makes me a slave to the application.

  5. Other than the image issues (which is going away), what is the advantage to using “One Drive” over a third party product like Dropbox? I have pretty much been doing that for years. Everything where I work on files ends up there. If the product will not let me point the default to a folder in Dropbox, I manually copy it there. I use a rather limited set of programs with rather plebeian functions (I being an electronic Luddite) so it serves my needs just fine. It does cost money but for what I pay for 1 terabyte I cannot complain.

    • One advantage I’ve found is that for about the same price of Dropbox($99.99), you can get Office 365 Home which includes 5 licenses for MS Office, 1 TB of OneDrive for each user (5 TB) and 60 minutes of Skype credit for each user per month (300 min). A single user license is only $69.99). And OneDrive hold older versions of files for 90 while DropBox only 30 days, unless the’ve upgraded it recently.

      Dropbox is slightly more user friendly. Do the math.

  6. OneDrive is great but what about if I am hit with one of the crypto viruses, putting a lock on all my files? And then they get synced up to OneDrive? Now I have no backup. I am a firm believer using external storage and disconnecting from my PC once the backup has completed.

    • OneDrive has a version history. If you go to the OneDrive website soon enough (I’ve read on the MS support site they keep versions for 90 days) , right clicking on a file and selecting Version history, you can to get an older unencrypted file back.

    • You are thinking backwards on that: the first strategy should be to avoid malware. A good second strategy would be to have a nice, unplugged, archive hard drive that you periodically update. Start thinking of your unplugged drive as an archive, instead of as your main backup strategy and you’ll be safer. Then work freely knowing you can always recover.

        • It’s safer in that if all of your computers are destroyed, your data is still available through Microsoft. And it’s not a replacement for a system image backup, it’s an additional safeguard.

  7. Hopefully I am not asking a redundant question, but I am looking for a drive in the cloud that acts like an external drive and doesn’t sync everything all of the time. I want to be able to store data to that drive and then delete that data from my computer to free up space but have it remain on the cloud to be loaded back on my computer at a later time. None of the cloud drives, google, onedrive, appple , drop box, seem to offer that option. Have I just not read the instructions carefully enough to find this option. Any help would be great

  8. One of the most valuable features of OneDrive is Version History. We’ve all at one time or another totally screwed up a file and saved it or we need to review or restore an older version of a file to capture some information that would otherwise be gone forever. If you tick the desired file, click Version History on the OneDrive menu, a new tab will open. On that tab, you can choose to restore an older version of the file. This has saved me more than once.

  9. I considered using One Drive. But, as you have pointed out, it saves only data, and only what you put on the OneDrive folder. People who rely on having saved their precious files on “My Documents” seldom consider the implications. Saving files versus saving the computer image are a bit different. So, One Drive is a bit short in that respect. The other thing is that, as with commercial alternatives such as DropBox, if you have more than a few gigabytes of data, you will have to pay. So, as “free” as One Drive may appear, it does not meet the needs. If you want the whole image backed up, you go with something like Macrium Reflect. The free version will do it for you in a somewhat trivial way. Then for a small fee the full version will do it all. I know, it is not the same as instant backup and accessible from any computer. DropBox, which I have used for some years will do it. Years ago I organized my files so that anything important that is not dealt with the operating system is under one folder called Dropbox. It is similar to what one would do if using One Drive.

    I have nothing against Microsoft, but this One Drive is a late-comer that is trying to get into the league of on-line back up folks. Just because it is part of the offered options under Windows does not make it my first choice. So, whether paying a premium for One Drive, DropBox, or some such, does not matter as long as it works and know what you are doing. Still, you have to pay.

    • Leo’s idea is to use this to supplement an image backup, not replace it. If you have an Office 365 subscription ($70 or $100 a year depending on ho many computers you want to use it on), you get included 1000 GB storage for each computer. I keep all of my personal files on it and I use Macrium Reflect for my system image backup. In my case, I also use OneDrive to keep all (3 currently) of my computers 100% in sync.

  10. Any backup system must be dependable and available. The problem with OneDrive is that it is a Microsoft service/product. If MS history is a guide, MS will change something soon enough, rendering the backup system broken or inoperative. A likely scenario will start with changing the name “OneDrive” to something more catchy (you may remember that the MS cloud storage used to be called SkyDrive, Windows Live SkyDrive, Windows Live Folders). Then one day it won’t work or won’t be compatible with this or that, or the login will require a DNA sample or fingerprint, etc. A cloud storage should never be the only or primary backup method.

    • The SykDrive->OneDrive rename wasn’t Microsoft’s idea. They were sued by a British company over the name “Sky”. If you avoid anything because it might change or break some day, then you’re pretty much avoiding everything from every vendor, not just Microsoft.

  11. My Picture Folder is empty in One-Drive, how do I move them or save them to One Drive and still have them where they are now? My photos are much more important to me than my Documents, the Picture Folder is also empty in Drop Box.

  12. Just a note to say thank you so much. My USB back up drive was not responding and after a back up it reported errors and the back up could not be opened.
    Your great tutorial now had me on the cloud.
    Thanks again.

  13. A word of warning when running Macrium Reflect V7 alongside OneDrive Sync Engine.
    I run a Windows 8.1 64-bit system. Scheduled daily runs of Macrium took between 6 – 10 minutes, monitored over a few months.
    Opening a Microsoft account invoked OneDrive, at which point my Macrium run times escalated every day to a lowest of 50 minutes but on many occasions up to 18 hours, on a PC running no other applications concurrently other than the usual suspects like OneDrive as background tasks. This long-running problem was reported to Macrium, but before they could open a remote session for investigation and during a Macrium run already at 4 hours, I deleted OnDrive Syn Engine in Task Manager and Macrium immediately kicked into life and finished within a couple of minutes. I repeated this on successive days and deleting OneDrive Sync Engine resolved the issue every time. I have reported the outcome to Macrium.

  14. I recommend Carbonite which does much the same thing. It costs a modest sum each year but is well worth it. Be aware that files you delete will be stored for only a month.

  15. I set up OneDrive a couple years ago and moved some files into various folders I created there. When I’m logged in, I can view/open those files.

    On my computer, the OneDrive folder is in its default location, and “Sync All Files and Folders in OneDrive” is checked.

    Right-clicking the OneDrive icon on my Windows 7 computer tells me syncing is supposedly ongoing (the options are pause 2, 8, 24 hours), but if I select View Online, I see only the folders I created in 2015. The total space used is only 550 MB. My c:\ drive is about 700 GB. If OneDrive is syncing my pc, where are all my files??? Are they in some folder/location I’m just not seeing? If this works only for Win 10 computers, why does OneDrive show me an option to PAUSE syncing?

    • Bet you are backing up to a different OneDrive (or really, a different Microsoft) account. Click on your OneDrive icon down in the lower right taskbar, click on the three tiny dots, and then “view online” to see what your OneDrive app is backing up to. Does not have to be the same account as you are logged in to via a web browser.

  16. Because OneDrive was invalidate by Group policy, it seems that there was no file.
    I have memories referring to Leo’s Member’s site tips.

  17. I have several problems with OneDrive.

    1. I’d have to encrypt everything to ensure privacy.
    2. There’s no guarantee that Microsoft won’t decrease my quota (again).
    3. I’d be unable to restore large files on my summer (metered) connection.

    I prefer a non-cloud solution that, fortunately, is free. I rely on ResilioSync. This is a BitTorrent-based application that allows me to keep folders in sync over just about any type of connection. I have an old laptop that for current applications is severely underpowered, but as a file server is more than adequate. I plugged in a large, external drive and set up the sync. Because it always uses the shortest possible path, data gets no farther than my router. Like standard BitTorrent, only changes are transferred. A history folder is configurable which would protect my remote files from ransomware. As a bonus, I can invite others to share specific folders with read/write or read-only access. Handy with a son who lives across the continent.

    Traffic between nodes is always encrypted so I never have to add encryption/decryption as a manual step and the transferred data is never saved onto a server in the cloud. ResilioSync is available in a paid version but is free for personal use. The free version has all the features I need but the paid version adds a few niceties.

    • 1.BoxCryptor solves that
      https://askleo.com/boxcryptor_secure_your_data_in_the_cloud/

      2.I don’t think they’ll lower their storage limits. They eventually grandfathered the people whose limits they reduced.

      3. Not sure, but it seems to me any cloud backup or sync would use similar bandwidth.
      OneDrive also uses end to end encryption (https:) The issue is whether you want unencrypted data out on anybody’s server.

  18. I think SpiderOak also does secure/encrypted. There have been several problems with cloud services like DropBox/BoxCrytptor/SpiderOak. Since I don’t use them I don’t know if they have been resolved.

    1. Files were encrypted but file names were not.
    2. Files were encrypted but the key was known to the provider (did not affect SpiderOak)

    Since I also have two laptops at the cottage I just have to take the external drive and the backups/restores are available there as well. I never have to worry about an arbitrarily decreased quota and I never have to worry about access to my files if a company gets hacked or goes out of business.

    Unlike Blanche Dubois I do not rely on the kindness of strangers.

  19. Don’t know why everyone, or at least a large majority of folks are so hip to jump into the CLOUD….
    Man, that really gives me pause when I see it done and being used on a regular basis for backing up so much of personal info and even national/international biz work.
    Hackers one day in the not too far distant future WILL FIND A WAY TO ACCESS ALL THAT DATA! it’s just a matter of time.
    I believe it’s the ‘ease of accessibility’ that people like because they don’t want to spend a few bucks on an external HD and then buy a program for backing up their data.
    With the recent hacking of millions of personal data getting out of hand, that just reconfirms my own personal belief that the CLOUD everyone is or wants to use is a DARK GREY CLOUD that’s gonna dump on them in time and all that data is gonna get real wet and like ink on paper, all you have left is a blob or blue smudge of un-intelligence! Wow, is it worth the chance? It’s like some of Murphy’s Law: “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something” OR “If anything can go wrong, it will,” Me: at the worst time! OR “Technology is dominated by those who manage what they do not understand,” OR, well, you get the idea….have fun!

    • I have several external drives and 2 paid for backup programs, and I still use the Cloud, OneDrive, to synchronize my files on all my computers and also it also serves as a backup. I agree that a potential hack might expose my sensitive information so I have all my sensitive files encrypted using Boxcryptor.

  20. I have all of my personal files in my OneDrive folder. I can do that because I have 1 TB per licensed computer as I use Office 365. If you don’t have a version which gives you enough storage, you can have some files in the OneDrive folder and others in Dropbox and Google Drive which combined would probably be enough storage for most people.

  21. I find several problems with OneDrive: it only provides 5gig of storage so that I can’t save any large amounts of data unless I pay for additional time or install Microsoft Office which I don’t need and I tried just have it saving small files instead of all my files and I could not find those files. All that showed was files I had saved years ago when I first tried OneDrive, not the current files. Google provides 10 gig of free storage with their cloud backup.

    • One workaround is to use OneDrive, DropBox and Google Drive. You can spread your important files you want backed up among those three services plus Flicker for photos. If you have more files that need backing up, you can consider a paid version of one of those or rely on system image files and only put the most critical files on the cloud. Unless you need to back up multimedia files, video, music and lots of photos, the average user will be covered using those 4 services.

  22. Uploading to OneDrive a folder with has many sub folders with files all that was uploaded was the folders. No files. Checking on the internet that seems to be a common problem. So I am willing to pay for OneDrive but not willing to upload files one at a time.

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